John Smith Map

John Smith’s famous map of Virginia shows the Monacan town of Rassawek, the site of which is now slated for a pump station. Rassawek can be found at the top left of the map, between the Powhatan sketch and the banner proclaiming “Virginia.” 

In 1612 when John Smith drew his Map of Virginia, he recorded an Indian town at the fork of the Rivanna and James rivers, called Rassawek. Smith learned that Rassawek was the capital of the Monacan people: All Monacan towns sent their tribute to Rassawek and gathered there for major ceremonies.

That spot where the rivers meet, now known as Point of Forks, is one of the most concentrated archaeological districts in Virginia. The history of the Monacan people over 200 generations is written in this soil and landscape. Rassawek is a tangible connection to our ancestors, the vast majority of whom did not survive the arrival of the English and many of whom we believe are buried there.

Despite repeated warnings of the importance of Rassawek by historians, tribal leaders, and concerned citizens, the James River Water Authority and Fluvanna and Louisa counties plan to destroy our pre-Colonial capital and burial grounds to build a water pumping facility.

Their plan is tragic and unnecessary: Alternative locations exist, but the authority has picked Point of Forks for several reasons — including, it says, because it will be cheaper to build the pump station there.

But the alternatives do not erase irreplaceable Indian history to accomplish speculative development goals such as attracting IT companies or call centers.

Rassawek was a large town, with a longhouse of 60 feet and at least a dozen roundhouses. Our ancestors lived and died there, performed rituals and practiced community, and the artifacts they left behind reveal important stories to Native and non-Native people alike. A carbon-dated feature at Rassawek indicates occupation as early as 5,340 years ago; that’s about 200 generations before John Smith.

We are deeply troubled that JRWA expects to disturb our ancestors’ resting places: It already has received permits that give its permission to store these bones when they are found and is in the process of applying for permits to excavate burials. But our experience is that when Indian burials are dug up by contractors, they are returned to us — if at all — in cardboard banker’s boxes.

Our ancestors deserve to rest in peace, and our living community does not deserve to again endure the emotional trauma of holding funerals and reburial ceremonies.

At a time when the National Park Service is working with advice from eastern Virginia tribes to interpret the capital of the Powhatan Confederacy, Werowocomoco, for visitors from across the U.S., we can’t help but wonder why another federal agency — the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers — would issue a permit to JRWA that would have the ultimate effect of destroying the Monacan capital.

Surely if taxpayers become aware of JRWA’s plans, they will join us in encouraging the authority to do the only reasonable — and right — thing: Save Rassawek. Move the pump station.

Pamela Thompson is acting chief of the Monacan Indian Nation. The Monacan Indian Nation is a federally recognized American Indian tribe based in Amherst County. It is the largest tribal community in the commonwealth, with more than 2,400 members.

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